The customer is always …

31358116_xxl-(1)_PPHere’s how to detect the most common wine, spirit and beer complaints or faults, plus ways to deal with them when problems arise. Ben Canaider explains

It can be a thankless task. Running the bar or floor of a licensed venue dedicated to premium alcoholic beverages is not always an early Tom Cruise film. You have the odd rough day, particularly when the customer complains, and has to be right.

It’s because drinks complaints, whether they range from the common and everyday (such as cork taint in wine) to the more bizarre (such as cork taint in whisky…), are a very one-sided affair. Not only is the customer always right, but the customer is invariably wrong. Misinformed and badly considered outbursts of stroppiness about a wine or a beer or a cocktail leaves you no sea room. You just have to agree and offer to replace the glass or the bottle or the round, and magnanimously so. It goes with the territory.

Yet there are ways to offset the lost profits associated with returned drinks, and there are ways to turn the occasion of a complaint into another sales opportunity. Better still, there are also ways to spot real faults in beverages before they even get to the customer, so methods of embarrassing assuagement are not then required.

Common faults

Cork taint: With the advent of wine screwcaps, cork taint is hardly the menace it used to be; yet some wines are still sealed by cork and many older cellared wines come with a bit of old Portuguese bark as a stopper. So it behoves anyone serving such wines to be familiar with cork taint and to take the time to assess the wine for the customer when it is served. Cork taint is, of course, that smell of mould and chlorine; and the effect on taste is to strip any wine of its more pristine fruit qualities.

Everyone has a different degree of tolerance (or detection) of cork taint, so one woman’s corked wine is another’s blissfully ignorant pleasure. More importantly is the wonderfully and ritualist theatre that occurs whenever a wine sealed with cork is ordered. The wine has to be assessed by the customers. Eleven out of 10 customers have no idea about cork taint, so this is theatre of the most extreme absurd. But if there’s any doubt about the wine, you have to get another bottle. This raises some issues. Let’s say the bottle is an $850 bottle of lesser Grange Hermitage… Unfortunately, you wear the loss, unless you dare return it to the rep.

Cork taint is not solely associated with wine, however. Any drink sealed with a cork can be so affected—whisky, for instance. Detection of cork taint in such drinks is low, because of the extra complexity and secondary, non-fruit aromas and tastes found in such drinks; so if you get a whisky returned for cork taint, you should buy a Lotto ticket on the strength of ridiculous statistical probability.

Freshness and oxidation: With screwcaps has come another and hitherto oft overlooked problem with both wine and packaged beer: freshness and oxidation. Just because a wine is sealed with a screwcap, it doesn’t mean it can’t be damaged by exposure to high and fluctuating temperatures. Store a bottle of current vintage fresh, aromatic white—such as semillon, sauvignon blanc or riesling—in the hottest part of your storeroom for a long summer and you’ll quickly cook the wine. Like cork taint, most customers won’t detect it, but the discerning few will, and it is customers with such exquisite discernment that always raise the biggest fuss. Similarly, screw caps can be damaged in transport and logistics, and the slightest knock or whack can introduce the potential of microscopic oxidation. Given so much wine is nowadays made so cleanly and purely with a strong emphasis on pristine fruit quality and minimal oak, oxidation stands out more than ever. Like cork taint, it strips wine of fruit aromatics and flavour, and adds a faint nail polish remover smell to the drink. Not yum … unless you like sherry, of course.

Speaking of sherry, it is usually the drink that sits behind the bar, opened, for some time. Oxidation occurs in opened sherry as quickly as it does in opened wine. So sherry and all your by-the-glass wines need to be very carefully monitored for opened shelf life. Oxidised wine is certainly the biggest problem this correspondent encounters in licensed premises. Real rigour has to be applied to wines by the glass (BTG) but with more options regarding wine dispensing systems now available, there’s no excuse.

Freshness in packaged beer should also be on your radar, particularly if you’re using parallel importers or distributors and taking advantage of deals on such beers. If a Euro beer du jour is staggeringly affordable at a wholesale level it’s probably because it’s been doing the rounds for a while. Six months is where all packaged beer tops out, and with Australia’s current craft beer revolution in full swing, there are more and more customers with Cert 4s in beer faults sitting at your bar.

Of course, all of these potential faults and problems in your drinks cannot be entirely avoided. A five per cent fault rate would not be uncommon in most premises. The losses associated with them, and the cost of training staff to detect and monitor and assuage them, are unforgivingly compounded, however. Which is why—as much as you are apologetic and generously charming when dealing with complaints about the perceived faults in any drink (whether real or not …) it’s just as important to do the equation backwards. If five per cent of drinks served are returned because of a ‘fault’, then that five per cent needs to be built into your list price from the get-go. Otherwise, you’re underwriting someone else’s error, and that’s not fair.

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